On April 28, two police officers in Georgia killed 36-year-old Somali refugee Shukri Ali Said after her family called 911 seeking mental health assistance.
Many publicly condemned the shooting, suggesting bias against her Muslim identity may have played a role. The Georgia Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is leading a civil rights investigation against the police officers.
“It is possible that law enforcement failed to properly de-escalate conflict with a woman they knew to be mentally ill,” CAIR-Georgia director Edward Ahmed Mitchell said in a statement issued on behalf of Said’s family. Said, who had been diagnosed as bipolar, was allegedly refusing to drop a knife when the police opened fire.
“It is also possible that law enforcement reacted differently to Shukri, a Somali-American woman who was reportedly wearing a hijab and a dress at the time of the shooting, than they would have reacted to another individual,” Mitchell added.
Political activist Linda Sarsour, who co-chaired the 2017 Women’s March, wrote on Facebook: “I am sad. I am outraged. I am mourning. I am helpless. Every damn day. Black bodies on our streets. We cannot be silent. We cannot be numb. We have to remind ourselves that while this happens too often – it’s NOT RIGHT.”
Said’s death shines a spotlight on a critically overlooked reality that often contributes to cases of police brutality: the way in which law enforcement officers have become front line responders to those experiencing a mental health crisis.
More than half a million people with serious mental health issues do not receive the care they need due to a variety of barriers, most significantly of which is accessibility. As states and hospitals have cut back on funding for community mental health services, access to treatment has either declined or become unaffordable. Those who are unable to find mental health treatment are likely to end up in jail or prison.According to a 2015 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than people without mental illness, and about one in four fatal law enforcement encounters involves an individual with serious mental illness. These are jarring statistics, serving to illustrate a much bigger problem: the failure of the US health care system to offer adequate mental health care both in everyday moments and in moments of crisis.
Shockingly, Los Angeles County Jail, Rikers Island Jail in New York City and Cook County Jail in Chicago serve as the three largest psychiatric institutions in the US. For many, prisons may be their first or last resort for care. Some purposefully enter the criminal legal system in order to receive mental health care.Two million individuals living with mental illness are placed in jails each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. People with mental illness are typically introduced into the criminal legal system through minor offenses such as jaywalking or disorderly conduct. Not all those who end up in jail or prison leave with a criminal record, but those that do have a harder time finding a job that could provide them with the necessary health care benefits to access mental health care treatment. As a result, they find themselves either homeless, in emergency rooms or back in the prison system once again. People with mental illness have high rates of recidivism.
Community organizers around the US are developing alternative emergency first-response models and training that minimize the role of the police. In Eugene, Oregon, White Bird Clinic in collaboration with the City and Eugene Police Department have developed the Crisis Assistant Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) program, which is a mobile crisis intervention service that responds to non-criminal social welfare emergencies, such as mental health crises, non-criminal substance and drug abuse, and poverty-related issues. The program has found a lot of success in reducing police involvement and helps residents by providing counseling services, mediating disputes and transporting people to social services.
Meanwhile, in Oakland, California, Critical Resistance, an organization working to abolish prisons, has launched the Oakland Power Project. The project provides training to community members so they have the power to intervene in health care emergencies in place of the police. These alternative emergency first-response initiatives provide excellent blueprints for cities to adapt and expand upon to break the link between policing and mental health care that can often be fatal.
Instead, emphasis has increasingly been to provide law enforcement officers with training to deescalate crisis situations with people with mental illness. However, that is not enough. If we want to avoid another death like Said’s, we need to start paying attention to the ways the health care system closely interacts with the criminal legal system and invest greater resources into preventative community-based models of mental health care.